Today’s Solutions: November 28, 2021

If you walk around some 1920s-era neighborhoods, it’s not unusual to see a tiny grocery store inhabiting the street corner. This used to be normal in residential areas, but as cars became more widespread, businesses relocated to more centrally-located commercial centers such as malls.

The coronavirus, however, is making us question once more where shops should be located. At a time where more people work at home and where we are actively trying to avoid places that bring masses of people together, wouldn’t it make more sense to bring small businesses back to residential neighborhoods?

As urban planner Neil Heller puts it, “it might be advantageous for businesses that rely on office workers to colocate now where the people are.” Small neighborhood shops would likely have much lower rent, and people in residential areas would surely appreciate being able to walk to get their groceries rather than drive.

Heller, who runs a firm called Neighborhood Workshop, is a proponent of what he calls ACUs, or accessory commercial units. If backyard cottages (also known as ADUS, or accessory dwelling units) have become an increasingly common way to add new housing to existing neighborhoods, ACUs in the front could help add new businesses.

To make the idea possible, zoning laws would have to change. Cities would also have to take steps to make it simple for small businesses to get permits to use the spaces. But if more former ACUs are reactivated as tiny restaurants or coffee shops or stores—or if new ACUs were built—residential neighborhoods would benefit.

“Surveys and polls suggest that residents want local amenities and walkable amenities,” Heller says.

The buildings could help be part of what some planners call the 15-minute city, the idea that all residents should be able to walk or bike to take care of their daily needs within 15 minutes.

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